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As the Games return to London, it's worth remembering that they may not exist at all were it not for the perseverance of the Brits. (John Ritter)

The Little-Known History of How the Modern Olympics Got Their Start

As London gets set to host the XXXth Olympiad, acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford connects the modern Games to their unlikely origin—in rural England

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(The other was Sweden’s, and the Swedes were even more put out, but never mind.)

Sullivan, who could be a real jerk—four years later, he distinguished himself before the Stockholm Games by unilaterally refusing to let any female Americans swim or dive because he thought the bathing outfits too provocative—went out of his way to protest something or other every day. He started off, for instance, by claiming that the victorious English tug-of-war team wore illegal shoes. And so forth. For their part, the British grew increasingly irritated at the American fans, whose raucous cheers were hysterically described as “barbarous cries.”

Controversy continued to ensue, invariably somehow involving Americans. The ’08 marathon, for example, does surely still boast the most botched-up finish in Olympic annals. Now, at the first modern Olympics, the marathon, starting in the real namesake town of Marathon, had been run into Athens for 24.85 miles, but at the London Games the distance was lengthened to 26 miles 385 yards, which it remains, officially, to this day. The reason for this curious distance was that the race was started at Windsor Castle, so that Queen Alexandra’s grandchildren would have the best vantage.

It was an uncommonly hot, steamy day, but the largest crowd ever to see an athletic event in the history of humankind lined the streets. And here came little Dorando Pietri, a candy maker from Capri, down through Shepherd’s Bush, first into the Great Stadium, where the huge throng awaited. Unfortunately, as the Times of London described it: “A tired man, dazed, bewildered, hardly conscious...his hair white with dust, staggered on to the track.” Pietri not only would fall, but twice turned in the wrong direction, and only made it through those last 385 yards because, in a convoy of suits, helpful British officials held him up and escorted him home.

Naturally, upon review, Pietri was disqualified. However, sympathy for the little fellow knew no bounds. The queen herself presented him with a special loving cup, hastily, lovingly inscribed. Not only that, but, sure enough, the runner who first made it to the finish on his own and thus was fairly awarded the gold by default, turned out to be an American of Irish stock. He had a nerve. You see, during these Games the British themselves took all the gold medals in boxing, rowing, sailing and tennis, and also won at polo, water polo, field hockey and soccer (not to mention their disputed-shoe-shod triumph at the tug-of-war), but the Yanks had dominated on the track, and thus it was deemed bad form for the barbarous Americans to revel in their man’s victory over the brave little Italian.

But that brouhaha could not hold a candle to the 400-meter final, when three Americans went up against the favorite, Britain’s greatest runner, a Scottish Army officer named Wyndham Halswelle. Down the stretch, one of the Americans, J. C. Carpenter, clearly elbowed Halswelle, forcing him out to the very edge of the cinders. Properly, the British umpire disqualified Carpenter and ordered the race rerun.

Led by the obstreperous Sullivan, the Americans protested, lamely, and then, in high dudgeon, also ordered the other two U.S. runners not to enter the rerun. Halswelle himself was so disillusioned that he didn’t want to run either, but was instructed to, and, good soldier that he was, he won in what is still the only walkover in Olympic history. It left such a bitter taste in his mouth, though, that he raced but once more in his life, that only for a farewell turn in Glasgow.

Notwithstanding all the rancor, Lord Desborough’s ’08 Games absolutely did restore de Coubertin’s Olympics, establishing them as a healthy, going concern. Still, simple success as a mere sports spectacular is never enough for Olympic pooh-bahs, and Lord Desborough felt obliged to bloviate: “In the Games of London were assembled some two thousand young men... representative of the generation into whose hands the destinies of most of the nations of the world are passing....We hope that their meeting...may have a beneficial effect hereafter on the cause of international peace.”

But, of course, only six years after the Olympic flame was extinguished, the world fell into the most ghastly maelstrom of killing that any generation had ever suffered. Hardly had the Great War started, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, when Capt. Wyndham Halswelle of the Highland Light Infantry wrote in his diary how his men had bravely moved up the front a full 15 yards against the Germans. This minute gain of ground came at the loss of life to 79 men. Three days later the captain was winged by a sniper, but, after the wound was dressed, he returned to his position. This time, the very same sniper shot him dead in the head. He was 32.

Two months on, Lord Desborough’s eldest son, Julian Grenfell, a poet, fell near Ypres, to be buried close by, with so many others, on a hill above Boulogne. A few weeks after that, not far away, His Lordship’s second son, Billy, was so drilled with machine-gun bullets that his body was rendered remnants and merely left, like so many others, to spoil upon the battlefield. Nobody ever learned the lesson of how ephemeral the Games are better than did Lord Desborough, he who made them forever possible.

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